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A Culture of Caring

Universities build understanding between campus communities and student veterans.

By Nancy Rohlfs

While student veterans currently represent less than five percent of all students enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States, nearly two million men and women who have served are anticipated to be enrolled in classes—on campus and online—by 2020. Many higher-education institutions, public and private, with significant student-veteran populations are taking innovative steps to bridge the worlds of military and higher education to build understanding between these students and their campus communities.

One of them is Texas A&M University, San Antonio, where campus leadership, faculty, students and staff recently determined it important for faculty members whose classrooms include a significant number of military veterans to have a basic understanding of U.S. military culture. Currently, one in five students at Texas A&M University, San Antonio is military-connected—students who are themselves U.S. military veterans or active military or who have a spouse or parent who have served. Although the university is firmly committed to being a “military embracing” institution, the majority of faculty (as is the case at most colleges and universities) have no military experience.

This year, Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of A&M, San Antonio tapped the insights of a psychology professor who specializes in military psychology and a decorated veteran who works on campus to develop a new training program as a requirement for all faculty. To increase awareness and to promote understanding between new and existing faculty and military connected students, the university this fall launched a new Military Cultural Competence training program, required for all faculty to help them better understand military culture and the experiences of student veterans, and to build their insights on some of the strengths and challenges military connected students may bring to the table. Texas A&M, San Antonio is the first university in the nation to require faculty to take part in this type of training.

The training program is led in an educational partnership by Dr. K.C. Kalmbach, professor of psychology whose area of academic expertise focuses on military psychology and student veterans and Richard Delgado, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who serves as director of military affairs at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. “At the heart of this philosophy is a commitment to provide unparalleled service to those who have served in our nation’s armed forces and their families,” says President Cynthia Teniente-Matson.

“Post-training feedback from faculty revealed an increased understanding of ideas, issues and topics specifically related to the lives of men and women who had served,” says Dr. Kalmbach, who notes that the training recently moved beyond faculty and is now also available for all university staff. “Many indicated the training had raised issues they had never considered before.”

One faculty member noted that she had never realized that being “flexible” by allowing deadlines and test dates to be pushed out or offering to have them rescheduled wasn’t actually all that helpful, according to Kalmbach. “She said that she came to understand [through the training] that this approach can be really frustrating for military students who are accustomed to strict rules and timelines.”

Another faculty member reported that he had no idea that the average military family moves every 2.9 years, and that a student who had been a “military brat” may have attended 5-6 schools (in different states or even countries) before graduating high school. “He explained that he had never heard that saying before: ‘One person wears the uniform, but the whole family serves.’ Now it makes complete sense to him.”

The commitment to be a military embracing university brings with it a responsibility as a campus to be educated and aware of issues relevant to a military student population, according to Professor Kalmbach. “Although they are similar in many ways to other non-traditional students, military-connected students do possess unique characteristics and face additional challenges on the way to graduation,” she says. “By ensuring we have a culturally competent faculty and staff, we can promote engagement and better retention of this group.” Ultimately, she explains, the university’s goal is to foster a sense of belonging. “We want them to know that they are an integral part of our campus community,” she says.

Amy O’Keefe is executive director of Campus Alliance for Resource Education and works directly with student veterans at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. For the past four years, Texas Woman’s University has offered the Vet Zone program. “This is an optional military competency training which helps our faculty and staff understand the unique needs of collegiate veterans,” says O’Keefe. “So far, we’ve trained 130 of our faculty & staff, and have received positive feedback from those who have taken the Vet Zone training.”

What makes the Vet Zone training at TWU unique, O’Keefe says, is the portion of the program that focuses specifically on the unique needs or women veterans, who currently make up a growing number of those serving in the U.S. armed forces. When launching the program, her office interviewed TWU students who had served, and created a video featuring these women offering insights on their military service and on their transition to student life and their career aspirations. The video is used in the training to help faculty and staff gain perspective.

All of the Vet Zone training at TWU are live sessions, O’Keefe says, and they are conducted by her office, by her colleagues in the university’s counseling center and by other staff. “We cover general military terminology and facts,” she says, “and we offer information that will help them understand opportunities and challenges student veterans may encounter, discuss federal aid issues for veterans, and she light on what’s available to these students on our campus, such as options for early registration and exemption from some fees,” she says. “One of the sessions helps faculty and staff not only understand some of the military jargon these students may use,” O’Keefe notes, “and the session also covers how to help these students translate and transition some of these terms to those that are more commonly used in the workplace and elsewhere, outside of the military.”

 “While our student veterans come from all of the branches of the military, those who served in the U.S. Army make up the largest percentage,” says O’Keefe, who notes that the university’s Vet Zone poster was designed by students who had served in all branches. “Faculty and staff who have completed the Vet Zone training display the poster to let student veterans know their offices represent a sort of ‘safe zone’ for them, where someone has taken the time to better understand some of their experiences as students who have served in the military,” she says.

This concept was adapted from one developed by colleagues at Texas Tech University, where the Green Zone Training Program was established, several years ago. The Green Zone Program at Texas Tech is a training program for faculty and staff designed to develop a campus community of support for veteran and family member students. Attendees who take part in the program receive a free Green Zone T-Shirt and a sticker for their office door upon completion of the training. Green Zone Posters are posted around campus advertising the program to students.

While a number of other colleges and universities across the country, including Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, California State University, Fresno (Fresno State) and Florida State University have also developed new programs to build awareness of student-veteran issues on their campuses, Florida State has taken an innovative step to combine information and the arts to generate understanding.

Launched in 2011, the annual Florida State University Student Veteran Film Festival is a unique event designed to raise awareness of veterans’ issues and garner support for veteran-related initiatives at FSU. As a student-led event, the screenings and discussions are intended to addresses concerns important to student-veterans as well as active-duty service members. The festival, sponsored by the Office of the President, Student Veterans Center, Florida State Collegiate Veterans Association, and other departments across campus, is a university-wide event that brings together students, faculty, staff and the community. Film screenings are typically followed with a panel discussion, often with the director of a recently released military themed film, with veterans and others.

FSU also offers a special annual orientation session specifically for student veterans (and programming for their families), supports a very active chapter of the Collegiate Veterans Association, and has gained national visibility for its film festival which is considered a model in higher education as a new and creative way to get student veterans involved in raising awareness.

According to many campus administrators who create successful programs to build understanding of issues specific to the experiences of student veterans, involving those students in the development of those projects is a key part of their success. “Encouraging those student veterans to take part in the video that we use, to work together to create the Vet Zone poster and to provide us with additional feedback on our approach was key,” says Amy O’Keefe of Texas Woman’s University. She notes that getting those students involved has not only made the program more successful and meaningful, but it has also added to the credibility and purpose of the program.

Professor K.C. Kalmbach of Texas A&M, San Antonio agrees that her university’s decision to involve student veterans and other military-connected students in her university’s initiative contributed to the program’s success. “One student reached out to me when he heard about it and asked to be included in the work group,” she says, “and other military students assisted in the preparation for the face-to-face workshop with faculty.”

She notes that one of the student veterans who was engaged for his thoughts about the new program felt that it struck an important balance as it raised awareness more widely on campus. “He told me that he thought it was really good that we are educating faculty and staff about some of the things he and others go through as veterans,” she says. In a recent correspondence, she says, the student stated: “We don’t want special favors – we just want people to understand. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. That feels good.’”

Additional Info

  • Issue: 11
  • Volume: 10
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